Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Linus Roache, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong'o, Anson Mount, Shea Whigham
Running Time: 106 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
"Taken on a plane." That was the most popular description being thrown around for the Liam Neeson action thriller Non-Stop after getting a glimpse of its trailer. No one is kidnapped in the movie, unless you count the 145 passengers held captive aboard a non-stop Boening flight from New York to London by a crazed, anonymous hijacker, but I get the comparison. It does feature the actor in yet another ass-kicking action outing, in this case one of his most enjoyable yet. But what's so remarkable is that on paper the plot is far sillier and more prepostrous than that of both Takens, Unknown and The A-Team combined. And that doesn't matter one bit. In fact, it works to its benefit. The whole thing plays more like Clue or Scream with just a dash of Speed and Flight Plan thrown in for seasoning. So few action movies are capable of gluing you to your seat that when the rare one comes along that does, it's impossible to pick apart the little details that eventually become irrelevant in the face of such mind-blowing fun.
Neeson is Bill Marks, an alcoholic U.S. air marshal and former police officer aboard British Aqualantic Flight 10 who starts receiving text messages on his phone midway through the flight that someone will die on the plane every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into an unspecified bank account. With the help of the other air marshal on the flight, Hammond (Anson Mount), sympathetic passenger Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) the pilots and flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery), he must vet all the passengers and crew to determine who's texting him and threatening the lives of those on board. As the clues pile up and his interrogation tactics become more volatile, Bill starts to realize the perpetrator has set up most of those clues to point in his direction, with a checkered past and troubled present making him the primary suspect. At odds with the TSA and most of the passengers and crew, the clock is rapidly ticking to uncover the mystery hijacker who's plan is more involved than Bill, or anyone else on board, could have suspected.
What's most surprising is how well the film uses modern technology to set up and pay off the story. You'd figure few modes of communication would be more cinematically uninteresting than texting, especially in an action thriller. But director Juame Collet-Serra makes clever use of it, as Bill must use every resource at his disposal to determine which passengers are sending texts when he's receiving them. While we've already seen quite a few movies and TV shows incorporate texting into the narrative, this plot hinges on it and the visual representation of the messaging onscreen is a step above the usual and never bores. As someone who's not a fan of the technology and worries it will date every movie in which it appears, this was a pleasant surprise. The actual murders are also handled in an inspired way that has the viewer on edge guessing the means and methods by which the next unsuspecting passenger or crew member will meet their eventual demise.
In an unusual occurrence for this genre, you can actually claim "everyone's a suspect" and mean it, as it's deliriously fun seeing just how far the screenplay pushes that notion. Even before the plane takes off we're given passing glimpses of the passengers and crew boarding the flight, with subtle hints dropped as to the likelihood of them being this mystery terrorist just based on their personalities. Aside from big stars Neeson and Moore, most of the cast is peppered with talented character actors, any of whom could be playing the perpetrator. Because each slide so easily slide into their roles, our suspicions waver by the minute. There's Anson Mount as the air marshal clearly hiding something, Michelle Dockery as the determined and resilient flight attendant, Corey Stoll as an angry cop and Scoot McNairy as a nerdy, bespeckled schoolteacher who could easily double for Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo. Recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o has a tiny role as another flight attendant, providing a sobering look at the direction her career could have gone had she not been cast in 12 Years a Slave.
Setting this apart from most of the other Neeson action vehicles is the claustrophobic location of a commercial airplane. One of the biggest thrills is seeing a towering Neeson squeeze through the aisles manhandling passengers, any one of which could be the hijacker. And that includes him. I was sure from the start exactly who it would be only to find that when the reveal came, I couldn't have been more wrong. Many more will have the same experience, as their identity is very well protected right up until the final moments, at which point the movie does start to resemble something closer to Taken, or more accurately, Die Hard. Even still, all of this is handled exceptionally well. How favorably viewers judge the eventual outcome and the clues leading up to it will ultimately determine how much rewatch value it contains. As we know, movies like this go down like a great Big Mac at the time, but aren't frequently revisited later.
Audiences got it right by embracing a smart action movie with an ingenious set-up, and barring a few hiccups, just as clever an execution. Carrying it all is the authoritative Neeson, who further solidifies his status as maybe the only believable action star we have. When he says or does something, you know it's true and it's time to get down to business. There's a lot of potential absurdity to sell and he gets away with all of it, turning our attention to a compelling aviation mystery milked for all the suspense it's worth.